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ARGENTINA | 20-11-2020 11:01

Frente de Todos advances Congress agenda with marathon session

Favourable outcomes for ruling coalition in Congress. After more than 20 hours of debate in lower house, deputies back ‘wealth tax’ bill and initiative to stop commercial redevelopment of fire-destroyed land.

A marathon session in the lower house proved highly beneficial for the ruling Frente de Todos coalition this week, with favourable outcomes allowing the government to advance on a number of key items on its congressional wishlist.

On Wednesday morning, after an epic debate lasting more than 20 hours, and with most citizens only just waking up, lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies voted it approve two important bills – the so-called ‘wealth tax’ bill targeting those with large fortunes and an initiative to prevent commercial development of fire-destroyed land. 

Notably, both initiatives were co-authored by the head of the Peronist bloc in the chamber, Máximo Kirchner. 

Deputies also approved, with a sweeping majority, the so-called ‘Yolanda Law,’ named after Argentina’s first secretary of Natural Resources and Human Environment of Argentina, Yolanda Ortiz. If passed, all those who work in public office receive training on green issues and the environment. 

However, those developments were overshadowed by a major announcement from President Alberto Fernández, who said Tuesday his administration had sent a bill to legalise abortion in Argentina in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. 

That initiative is expected to pass through the lower house, as a similar bill did in 2018, though it will face a defining vote in the Senate, which is traditionally more conservative, most likely before the end of the year.

The progress made this week on a number of issues will raise spirits in the government’s ranks. According to sources, the Casa Rosada is hoping for a flurry of legislative activity before the end of the year during Congress’ extraordinary sessions, with President Alberto Fernández seeking to turn the page on the coronavirus crisis and achieve a number of targets before the New Year.

Three key votes

This week’s marathon session kicked off on Tuesday, though things initially didn’t go smoothly: Vice-president of the chamber, opposition lawmaker Álvaro González (PRO), was forced to step into the breach and oversee things, with Lower House Speaker Sergio Massa waiting for results of the Covid-19 test after a week in isolation.

By 9pm, however, the Tigre leader had tested negative, found time to meet with at least eight government officials and was back in charge in the chamber, overseeing a session in which tempers boiled over at times in frustration. In line with the traditions of local politics, there were a few surprises along the way too.

Most of the heated exchanges centred on the wealth and fire-destroyed land bills, with opposition lawmakers saying the former would put off investors and the latter would prevent economic development.

After the first 13 hours of debate, the ruling coalition saw its bill to introduce a one-time capital levy on Argentina’s richest citizens approved, with 133 votes in favour and 115 against (mostly the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition). The government failed to win the support of all of the chamber’s left-wing politicians – deputies Romina del Pla and Nicolás Del Caño, who opted to submit their own angrily worded bill, which proposed a higher tax on large fortunes. 

The Extraordinary Solidarity Contribution Bill will likely reach less than 10,000 people, according to the AFIP, or around 0.8 percent of all taxpayers. The government hopes it could bring in as much as US$3 billion for the state’s coffers.

To seize victory, the ruling coalition benefitted from the support of a number of lawmakers from outside their bloc, including Córdoba politicians loyal to Governor Juan Schiaretti and two Federal Consensus deputies. Notably, their colleague Graciela Camaño, did not vote in favour. The group was also joined by two Juntos por el cambio rebels, Jujuy politicians Gabriela Bugos and Jorge Rizotti, who are aligned with provincial Governor Gerardo Morales, who has backed a number of the national government's policies in recent weeks. Of those who refused to back the pill, the most unexpected was Movimiento Popular Neuquino representative Alma Sapag, who said the initiative was “confiscatory.”

Later Wednesday morning, a second vote saw deputies approve the Kirchner-led bill to protect ecosystems from accidental or intentional fires and prohibit the sale of fire-destroyed land for periods ranging from 30 to 60 years. This time around, the vote was 132 in favour and 96 against, with four abstentions.

With time dragging on, tempers ran high and patience ran dry. During debate, pro-government deputy Leonardo Grosso declared that "the fire is going to stop being a business," before slamming the idea that one could be an environmentalist and part of the opposition coalition simultaneously as “incompatible.”

The third and final vote was less divisive: the Chamber of Deputies approved, almost unanimously, the ‘Yolanda Law,’ with 213 votes in favour, one against and two abstentions. Del Pla and Del Caño sat out the vote, despite agreeing with much of its intention, arguing that it did not go far enough.

The sole rebel was Neuquén lawmaker Francisco Sánchez (PRO), who ignored the whip to register her opposition.

– TIMES/AFP

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